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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Asmodee Makes Another Move

You'll have to pardon the spotty updating this week; I am at the GAMA Trade Show in Reno and not spending a lot of time in front of a keyboard.

It's Tuesday and that means a long day of publisher presentations.  The one that had the most business consequence out of what I've seen so far, was the Asmodee North America keynote.  ANA announced some serious changes to their distribution vertical:

  • There will be a "Best Sellers" stockist program a la Games Workshop;
  • Stores that play ball will get incentives such as a spiffy set of racks for free, pricing advantage, and free demo units;
  • ANA is committing to having the Best Sellers titles in stock all the time in distribution; and
  • The new Minimum Advertised Price for ANA products is 90% of MSRP, up from 80%.

This is made possible by the ANA retailer approval system and the exclusive distribution in the U.S. through Alliance.  I know exclusives are not popular among most retailers but the reality is Alliance is extremely well-practiced at this and is positioned to make it work.

ANA kindly provided the list of required stock titles.  It's stuff I already mostly want to have in stock all the time anyway, so this is an easy "yes" for DSG.  Examples:

  • Catan, 
  • Catan Seafarers, 
  • three Ticket to Ride standalones,
  • Mansions of Madness,
  • the three Arkham Horror series core games,
  • Star Wars Destiny R2P2 box,
  • Star Wars Rebellion,
  • Star Wars Imperial Assault (apparently not deprecated in favor of Legion),
  • Pandemic,
  • Pandemic Legacy Blue (which I guess will be available now),
  • 7 Wonders and 7 Wonders Duel,
  • Splendor,
  • Dixit,
  • Concept,
  • Carcassonne,
  • Mysterium,
  • Dead of Winter,
  • Small World,
  • Captain Sonar,
  • Dice Forge,
  • TIME Stories,
  • Unlock set 1,
  • Takenoko,
  • and a few more titles that I expect to fall off the list at the first review.

I mean, wow, that's the DSG catalog in large part.  Okay, maybe it's not ALL I'm stocking.  I sell a remarkable lot of Boss Monster.  But a bunch of these are true evergreens that are proven and for the most part these are games that I tend to order without fear.

I think the tightened MAP, if enforced, which these guys tend to do pretty well, is going to help improve the value perception of the titles in this line.  Nobody complains that iPhones or PING clubs are just about always sold at full list price.  They don't feel like they are missing out on a deal by going ahead and buying, and the product is good enough that there isn't much buyer's remorse afterward.  I make a lot of hay offering preorders and other specials at 20% off for ANA products, and I don't think that will change much at 10% off.  I do think we'll see people spend a little more time with their games once they buy them, and maybe we'll see less of a firehose tempo in terms of market release, a frenzy up front, and dumping afterward.

Anyway still plenty left to do at GAMA but I'm happy to see big moves like this from publishers who are looking to improve the landscape for these products.  At the end of this mechanism is better capability for me to put good games into the hands of players.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Thoughts, Part 9

It's about that time of year again.  Next week I'm off to the GAMA Trade Show, where I'll network with my peers and the various publishers, distributors, and other stakeholders in the comic and hobby game industry.  I'm mostly excited because it's the only week all year that I'll get to spend with most of my online friends from the trade.  It's really amazing how much you get to care about people you rarely (or never) see, from the shared adversity and triumph you experience in parallel.
This year it's not in Las Vegas, but in Reno.  We went over all this last time out, and while I've never been to Reno Tahoe Carson Sparks etc, it's apparently arctic tundra there this time of year so it amounts to a trip to what might be a reasonably comfortable hotel, and all focus and attention being on the task at hand.  I've got to hunker down this year and run the show in "lean" mode, being far less extravagant with both my travel and with exhibit hall purchasing than I would be in flusher times.  The year 2018 will see DSG paying off its moving debts and gradually ramping into a far healthier status quo, a process already well underway.  Forgoing indulgence now buys me a much sweeter Christmas for my kids.

If you're in the industry and you're going to GAMA, feel free to check out the seminar I'm presenting with the gregarious extrovert John Stephens, one of the owners at Total Escape Games in the suburbs of Denver.  The seminar was conceived as a study in "competing in crowded markets," and evolved into a lesson on using the Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats analysis tool to guide business decisions.  We appear on Monday and Thursday.  This year there are no video games on the agenda, so the seminar I joined Paul Simer of Nerdvana in Tennessee to deliver last year won't officially happen, but I bet the topic will come up in the retailer lounge, and I'll be happy to talk shop.

Speaking of video games, the Nintendo Gamecube has been resurging in the past year or two, as the nostalgia tug of the Nintendo 64 reached a sustained high level and people who played the "GCN" from 2001 to 2006 or so are now a dozen years older and ready for what amounts to a throwback.  But in the past few weeks, the system has been white hot.  This might be thanks to videos like this one from Metal Jesus, as well as the availability of the EON HDMI adapter (in stock today at DSG!) making it unnecessary to spend over $300 to get a rare official component cable on the secondary market to enjoy the best and clearest video output the GCN can produce.  All at once I sold right out of Gamecube systems, and right now my buy prices are similar to what my sell prices were in January.  Software is blasting through too, with hot titles lasting a day or two on the shelves even when I overpay well beyond market rates for buys.  I don't see the Nintendo Wii heating up for a while yet, but if you've got patience for the spec, there are some rare titles that might be good pickups now before their prices get too crazy, like Metroid Prime Trilogy, Mensa Academy, Tatsunoko vs Capcom, and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn.

In unrelated news, what's going on at the helm at Games Workshop?  We're seeing all kinds of spotty stock availability, a number of retailers are experiencing chronic shipment problems, and information on the roadmap ahead is as opaque and inscrutable as it ever has been.  This is a different course than what we saw in 2017, when better information informed our buying decisions so we could spend more with confidence, and orders were so consistent you could set your watch to them.  If you still wore a watch, that is.  I don't know what sort of edict from Nottingham has been imposed, but seriously, throw that roadster in reverse while there's still time to get back to the tour.  My own rep has been accommodating and dependable, but I'm hearing much differently from the grapevine.

Magic... yes Magic.  It's the center of my business, for better or worse.  Singles are off-the-charts good right now.  Increasingly players are electing to buy outright the pieces to play their game, even when the secondary market economy makes that cumbersome and difficult.  I try to ease the pain as best I may, but in some respects I'm battening down the hatches against the same storm winds.  Sealed product?  Studs and duds.  Somehow, Wizards of the Coast just cannot call a shot these days.  Products we kinda sorta thought should be okay were red-hot sellouts, like Unstable.  And products that should have been no-brainers, like Masters 25, met lukewarm enthusiasm despite including a solid roster of in-demand cards.  I've made no secret that I'm not a fan of the market shenanigans driven by the likes of Saffron Olive, but I think he largely got it right with his assessment of how Masters 25 came up shallow, though better than Iconic Masters.  If Masters 25 was going to lean heavily on renewing scarce cards rather than bolstering the market supply of heavy staples, we needed to see more of them so that the flood of new supply didn't undercut the perceived value of the set overall.  Grim Tutor and Ravages of War are examples he gives that I specifically cited throughout spoiler week as appropriate for the set, but they didn't make the cut.  Even having the Scars fastlands or Onslaught fetchlands would have made a big difference.  Masters 25 will still sell through and be popular for years, but it's a Stratocaster, not a Les Paul.

In the opposite corner, I have the Pokemon TCG.  Pokemon singles have collapsed entirely.  Only a few key cards are desired or needed and the rest sell at or near bulk rates.  The overwhelming share of Pokemon Trainers who call DSG home want to buy booster packs, and only booster packs.  It probably helps that we have the ongoing 3-for-$10-after-tax deal going for any boosters I can readily restock, one of the few standing discounts in this industry that actually delivers the volume it needs to be worth doing.  But singles, special box sets, even starter decks or Elite Fat Pack Trainer Boxes... they may as well be ballast, for all anyone wants them, and I'm starting to pattern ordering accordingly.  I wonder if this will chalk up to be another odd disparity between my old Gilbert customer market and my new Chandler one, or whether retailers on a broader scale are seeing these effects.

That's all I have for today's Thoughts article.  I'll sign off once again with the immortal words of the late great Peter Steele: "Please buy our products."

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


ME: (Enters the store.)  Hi there everyone!

CHRIS: Hey there Bahr.


BRIAN: How's it going.

JAKE: Good morning.

DOOR: Bing bong.

BOARD GAME SHELVES: We are in disarray specifically to frustrate you.

VIDEO GAME RACKS: We'd make more money for you if people could see us.

MINIATURES TOWERS: We block your view of the room because we're too tall.

FUNKO POP SHELVES: Nobody visits us.

COMIC BOOK RACKS: So much room to breathe now.

HVAC: Enjoy the arctic air.

WALLS: Thanks for all the decor you put on us.  Oh wait.

REFRIGERATOR: You can't drink most of the goods I'm slingin'.

A/V SYSTEM: Hope you like Lindsey Stirling for five hours.

COUNTERTOP: I am covered in crap and not efficient and clean-looking.

BOX FULL OF PARTS: Allow me to impede your path to your desk.

ME: (Bumps box full of parts.)  Dammit (under breath)

BOX FULL OF PARTS: Got your shin!

GARBAGE CAN: I'm full of your discarded energy drink cans.

CHAIR: Oh thank you for not discarding me, I know I'm just an ordinary chair but I'm so glad I don't have to live in the game room with all my brothers.

DESK: I've known you since you were 13 years old and you kicked me out of your house.

STACK OF CARDS: Gonna sort me today?  Gonna sort me?  I'm SO out of order!

IMAC: You have like 62 new emails since you left home eleven minutes ago.

IN TRAY: I have a new invoice, two bills, and fifteen scan-and-shreds for you.


ME: (Doesn't recognize that number.)

BRIAN: I got it!  Good morning, thank you for calling Desert Sky Games, how may I help you, sir or ma'am?  No, the owner isn't here.  No, he doesn't take calls or in-store meetings.  You're welcome to email us.  It's-- huh, they hung up.

ME: (Thumbs up.)

HVAC: And I'm spent for now.

A/V SYSTEM: I lied. Enjoy some Fall Out Boy.

IMAC: A new update is ready that will require you to restart your Mac.

ME: (Looks at 25 open tabs in Safari, plus Word, Excel, and Mail.)  (Selects "Remind me tomorrow.")

SAFE: You'll want to deposit some of my cash, you know.

ME: (Puts jacket back on to walk across the street to the bank.)

DESK: You'll be back.

STACK OF CARDS: Wheeeeeeeee!  I fell over!

CHAIR: Thank goodness he's gone again.

BOX FULL OF PARTS: Still here!

ME: (Bumps box full of parts.  Grimaces.)  SON OF A

BOX FULL OF PARTS: He shoots, he scores!

DOOR: Bing bong.


ME: Hey Al!


ME: Hey Pupper!

CURB: LookoutlookoutLOOKOUT!  Why don't you go to the light!  JAYWALKER!

ME: (Crosses street.)


ME: (Crosses street.)

CIRCLE-K DOOR: Bleet blaaaaaat!

ME: (Picks up protein drink and almond butter snack crackers.)

CASHIER: Three ninety-one.

ME: (Hands over the money.)

CASHIER: Out of four.  Hey, are you guys hiring?

ME: You keep asking that while you're on the clock, are you sure you're safe to do that?

CASHIER: (Shrugs.)  I like Pokemon.

ME: I had my suspicions from your Pokeball tattoo.

CASHIER: Let me know?

ME: Will do.

CIRCLE-K DOOR: Bleet blaaaaaat!

ASPHALT: I give you an inch, you walk all over me.  Heyooooooo

DSG DOOR: Bing bong!


VIDEO GAME RACKS: We're ready to move to the front of the room.

COMIC BOOK RACKS: People bought things off me while you were gone.

HVAC: I'm awake!  I'm awake.  Here, have some Canada.

WALLS: We could be serving you so much better, but you don't have time to develop us.

REFRIGERATOR: How about a nice cold Mexican Coke?  That's right, you can't have one!

A/V SYSTEM: Remember MEEEEEEE for centurEEEEEEEs!

COUNTERTOP: Still covered in crap.

ME: (Bumps box full of parts.)

BOX FULL OF PARTS: Damn it feels good to be a gangsta.

CHAIR: I hate existence.

IMAC: Eleven new emails, but they're all purchases from TCGPlayer.

MESS OF CARDS: Are you gonna sort me now?  Soooooort Meeeeeeeeeeee.

ME: (Commences daily finance.)

QUICKBOOKS ONLINE: You need more money.

CHASE: You need more money.

BANK OF AMERICA: You need more money.

AMERICAN EXPRESS: Transaction approved to "WIZARDS OF TH"

PAYPAL: You need more money.

SQUARE: You need more money.

DISTRIBUTORS: Thanks for the money!

AMERICAN EXPRESS: Transaction approved to "GAMES WORKSH"

EBAY: Some guy wants to return a booster pack because it didn't contain a Black Lotus like he expected.  Don't keep him waiting!  Select here to give him all your money, and however much more he wants, and apologize for wasting the King Entitlement's precious time, and we'll sit here and enable this bullsh*t, because screw you, that's why.

FACEBOOK: Some guy messaged the store asking if we buy classic Pokemon cards.  He has several Machamps he will let go for $1000 each.  If we refuse, he says his boy scout troop is doing a project on how many one-star Yelp reviews it takes to drop a business's rating to where Google will no longer show it on Maps.

CRYSTAL COMMERCE: 504 Gateway Timeout Error.

TCGPLAYER: Some guy named Jim Johnson messaged asking us to ship his playset of Flooded Strands to his other address in Kathmandu, Nepal, and to his other name, Bishal Akash.  Want me to email sales support?

MESS OF CARDS: If you're not going to sort me, can you at least get that big silver cube off me?  One of your employees put it here while you were gone.

GAMECUBE: Hi sir!  I'm new here, and this is my controller!  I'm missing my power supply and AV cable, though.

ME: (Raises eyebrow, looks over at box.)

BOX FULL OF PARTS: Hey, hey what are you doing.  Hey, don't look at me like that.  No.  Stop.  What the hell to you think your doAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!  That was mine!  I loved that power supply!  That was MY AV CABLE!  You gave it to me to keep!  This is an outrage!  I'll bump you!  I'll bump you every g*dd*mned hour until you return my property!  DO YOU HEAR ME!

GAMECUBE: Good as new!  Thanks, Bahr!

ME: (Nothing.  Inanimate objects can't talk.)

DOOR: Bing bong!

CUSTOMER: Hey, you guys sell used Gamecubes?

ME: I have awesome news, my friend.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Competitive Espionage Highlight Reel

At least twice in the past week and five times since the beginning of the year, we have had visits from people looking for information to benefit our competitors, without them knowing we knew they were doing this.  There are certain lines of "curious questioning" that, in their ham-handedness, they ask in most obvious way possible, such as a bona fide customer never would.  But an urchin of a competitor absolutely would and does ask such questions.  Often they are tied to known discussions from social media, and we can tell whose particular grapevine is the source of some given line of inquiry, often because they're the only jackwagon pushing it.

I was especially amused at the visitor the other day who asked about all kinds of product categories, which right there is a tell because most customers are only interested in one or two things we carry and they don't care about the rest so they don't ask about the rest.  After he asked about a bunch of very particular changes we had made across a few categories, changes working fully as intended from our vantage point, the guy slipped in a question, a rehearsed-sounding line, that it "looks like we're dying or something."  Huh.  What a strange thing to say, and a strange way to say it.  You'll want to wind that reel back in, fisherman.  No bites on that cast.

We do have people wondering about our decision not to put a million-card inventory into binders or bins for people to pick through, damage, and shoplift, or spread out haphazardly in labor-eating showcases.  It's obviously because of volume efficiency and because we've got it all in an electronic system accessible from a kiosk or your computer or phone 24/7.  Not because we're dying or something.  We show them, we explain, and most people get it.  Our biggest in-town competitors do the same thing so they know how it works.  Others... I've explained it to them.  Some of them simply don't believe it.  They've spent so long expecting card singles to be merchandised and sold a certain way that the notion is ridiculous to them that a store would scale past the point where the more tactile methods are still feasible.  They're sure it must be some sign of internal decay.

Elsewhere, too: We've made major adjustments to our comic business lately (future article), the result of inherent upheaval within the category, not quite death throes.  And we went small on Warhammer for now, a move that is sales- and data-driven and is also a spec on the expected success of Star Wars Legion and A Song of Ice and Fire during the next few months.  We know people will come back to Warhammer and we'll be there when that happens.  Not quite a core breach.  Authentic customers get the picture.

It's all high comedy, we do our best to feed Boris and Natasha the exact information they could derive themselves from simple observation, plus a few peppercorns of our choosing for flavor.  They're thinking they are James Bond and have us snowed, and it's all we can do to keep a straight face while confiding to them our super-secret plan to drop Magic: the Gathering in favor of Beanie Babies.
Obviously, information about competitors has some value, or we wouldn't consume it.  However, information provided by competitors has so much less value compared to observation and deduction.  This is for the simple reason that competitors surely want me to have bad information about them, leading to incorrect assumptions and therefore bad decisions.  I may therefore assume that any information about competitors that is directed to my possession has a low confidence level of being accurate.  It's barely better than line noise.

What competitors cannot fake is what they actually do.  I can look up their eBay sold listings, for those who sell on that channel.  I can look up information in other channels as well.  I can examine buylists.  I can look at convention booths and the traffic around them.  I can observe which stores open or close branch locations, who recruits and when, and what kind of sales or specials they run.  I can look at who runs tournaments at a loss.  Many stores post photos of big Friday Night Magic crowds on Facebook; I can count heads and know they got that many that one time, but I also know they are going to self-select when to post such things, and we won't see brag posts when events run small or fail to fire.  If I really want to, I can walk right in the door of another store, though that will only provide me a snapshot of what they have on the shelves immediately to hand, and roughly how much of it.  Such a visit has some value.

I can, of course, talk to customers and friends, and send confederates of my own to run reconnaissance, but that information is necessarily second-hand.  Even from a trusted agent, I now have to filter both for their memory error, which might be minor, and for them being shown a Potemkin Village, which might surely happen if the competitor is able to mark our guy (or girl) the way we mark theirs.

Ex-employees who tour the town working at other stores are a useful source of information.  You didn't think Bill Belichick signed James Harrison off the Steelers' waiver wire purely on play value, did you?  Harrison had an imperfect photocopy of the Pittsburgh playbook in his brain, and he brought it with him to Foxborough.  I have hired from the departures of other store staffs, and they have hired from mine.  They will therefore have operational knowledge.  This is probably the most accurate second-hand information an owner can get about a competitor, and it's still vastly inferior to direct observation and deduction.  Ask anyone in the intelligence business: Expatriates are never fully trusted.

Some competitors are secretive, and this is mostly a good play by them, with an important drawback that I'm sure they are happy to take their chances with.  If they are not broadcasting misinformation as a matter of practice, then most of what I can learn about that competitor will reach me firsthand, by direct observation.  This means I may not have as much information about them to sift through, but what I do have will come with a greater confidence level, and will be much more accurate.  Quality over quantity.  But I was a professional analyst in my former career.  I may be better able to interpret observational information than others.  By contrast, most competitors in markets like mine place too high a value on gossip, while any attorney can tell you that eyewitness testimony comes with such reliability concerns that even courts that have spent centuries focusing on such evidence are finally starting to move in the opposite direction.  Secretiveness is a great counter to gossip, it drops the confidence level of gossip to the level of background noise.  Secretiveness also allows a business to conceal operational corner-cutting.  All told, it's probably the highest EV (expected value) play, assuming the industry remains largely as it is today.

Where all else is not equal, such as in my case where I endeavor to build DSG to the level of a megachain and build the kind of processes that will make it run by itself, allowing me to sell it off or retire to focus on my writing or whatever, there is so much operational transparency that I can usually hide in plain sight anything I don't want known for certain, with the abundance of activity and process making it difficult to assign importance to any particular discovery.  Simple observation of our results tells a clear and concise story: Whatever else a competitor may think of DSG, we have succeeded in moving into a facility that makes us the biggest show in town, and our three closest competitors have already gone out of business in the six months since, despite our directing zero attention their way.  We're just throwing Rose's low strong, over and over again.  Scoreboard.

Every day, customer demand drives what we sell, and we spend our focus on that.  Every day, customer preferences impact how we conduct events, and we pay attention to that.  Every day, customer experience shapes how we market our value proposition, and we practice and emphasize our delivery of that experience.  Customers first.  Competitors?  Whatever.  I guess they're out there.  Competitors are just not that important.  To the customer who walks in the door, competitors may as well not exist.

How will I handle Austin "Danger" Powers when he comes to visit again?  Who cares.  I'm not worried about the urchins, because I know what they can't observe firsthand, and I know what they're going observe and get completely wrong when they do show up.

The urchins are all going to be at their main waterin' hole on Friday nights, or whenever there's stuff happening at the store level like a prerelease, and so they'll never see the huge crowds we draw for Magic, D&D, and minis at the same time on those days.

The urchins are asleep in their beds and never see my fulfillment staff arriving early every morning, hours before the store opens, to pick, pack, and ship the scads of online orders we get from various channels, a business component that earns more than many small stores' entire revenue streams.

The urchins are working at their day jobs and never see me networking from my home office with an incredible assortment of awesome retailers, publishers, and distributors, getting great information early and maximizing DSG's ability to capitalize on 11th-hour hits.

Nope, the best the urchins can do is visit my store during the small hours, browsing racks devoted largely to video games and accessories these days, products no other tabletop stores in town have anywhere near our level of expertise in.  They enter our cavernous space exceeding 6000 square feet, hear upbeat background music playing on the AV system, and see perhaps a pickup game or two going on amongst a stretch of empty tables.  A staff member greets them and goes back to quietly sorting cards or processing a distributor order.  All is tranquil.  Magic singles are out of sight.  The deep video game stock is off the floor.  This time of year is ebb tide for tabletop, so there's not much exciting to see there.  RPGs are flourishing but they don't cut an imposing figure on the fixtures.  I guess as far as Spy Hunter 007 there can tell, our operation must be pretty moribund.  He can go report that to his benefactor.  There will surely be feasting and merriment there as they wait for the imminent notice of our closure.

Perhaps that recon payload is deliberately crafted on my part.  Perhaps I want them thinking about what I am doing, instead of thinking about better ways to run their business, optimize their processes, and delight their customers.

Or perhaps I'm just a jerk, a coarse and unfriendly former Jedi, and everything I just said above is wrong, and is deliberate misinformation intended to mislead those of my competitors who read this weblog.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Building For Tomorrow: Shopping Pathways

Paco Underhill, author of the essential Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, explains using observational data analysis why many of the retail store configurations work to increase sales and shoppability of product.  At the core of any such configuration are the pathways: the means by which visitors to the store will walk from one feature to another.

Typical configurations include a racetrack (a circular pathway surrounding the store's center and inside the periphery aisles) with product rack and fixture set up as an amphitheater (low and see-over-it in the middle of the racetrack, high and explore-into-it at the outside of the racetrack).  Using various other pieces of shopping psychology, such as proper display orientation and appropriate stock choices for endcaps, the result is an extremely shoppable store.  Think about places like Costco or Best Buy and you've already seen these concepts at work.

Of course there are disruptors and shakers pushing into new territory in terms of configuration, and we're all enjoy the experience they create and learning a distinctive imprint of their brands.  But just saying "you should be able to do it differently" and seeing it done differently are two different things. Two of the wider divergents are Apple and IKEA, and it's pretty safe to say they swing heavy hammers in their particular categories.  For some upstart furniture warehouse in Oklahoma City to turn IKEA on its ear, we're going to need to see something mind-blowingly compelling.

For most small specialty retailers, sticking to Underhill's proven methodology is the best approach.

Of course, we have variance in the size, shape, and orientation of our commercial buildings or suites. That makes a difference.  There may or may not be windows, secondary entryways or exits, unusual positioning of restrooms, or what have you.  Little Shop of Magic in Las Vegas occupies a renovated professional office floor.  Meeples Games in Seattle operates a kitchen.  Nerdvana in Tennessee made room in their staff area for a technical workbench to perform cell phone repairs.  Whatever store it is and wherever it is, unless it's the cookie-cutter 1000-square-foot shoebox with a counter running the length of the left side, it probably required some adaptation to make Underhill's setup work.

And then we have Desert Sky Games, six months after the move to Chandler.  Has it been that long already, I ask, knowing it has aged me years.
Right from the start, we set up the rudiments of the model.  The cash wrap and tills are on the left, the merchandise is in the middle, there is a counterclockwise racetrack around it, and the game room is behind all of that.  Like a game of Sim City (pictured), we had to set a lot of things up knowing they would be inefficient now, but would be in the right places for later.  Especially in the first month when the entire store was compressed into the front 30% of the footage, there were some head-scratcher layout decisions that only later bore fruit, like starting the merchandise some fifteen feet in, to provide a decompression zone.

We're running into a few issues that aren't agreeing with the model and are, in my observation, appearing to impede shopper ease.

Because we're using the grid rack fixtures we already owned, there is not a sufficiently low amphitheater.  It's improved significantly from the Gilbert store deployment and from the first-month tarp-limited storelet we had, but it's not good enough.  The Citadel and Army Painter paint racks block sight lines badly, and we have a gondola with apparel that we haven't managed to arrange more approachably.

We don't even really have the exterior ring as such, though there is a small piece of it in the form of some racking that is supposed to hold built white cardboard boxes that we never seem to have time to build.  But even those racks are going to be overrun by additional arcade games.  In fact...

The immediate turn-right is occupied on the wall by the vintage arcade.  While this has surely contributed to the arcade performing better than it ever has in DSG history, it also creates something of a shadow dead-zone for products.  It doesn't help that the stuff that's not security-intensive that we can readily feature there is well outnumbered in the store by stuff we need closer to where staff can watch it.  This is an open puzzle and one I'll look to iterate when I build some more grid gondolas out of the stack of fixture racking in the Fungeon.

Oh, also, the Fungeon (Fun Dungeon, you see, it's a play on words...) NEVER MIND anyway it's not built yet even today.  Once completed, we'll be able to get rid of the giant mound of crap in the back center of the suite once I can put main shipping into the unfinished room.  That space will then turn into something relevant for gameplay.  In turn, gameplay space nearer the front of the store can be optimized, such as with a streaming station, and configured so that it meshes with the south end of the retail space.  There are a bunch of dependencies and it seems like each domino isn't ready to be pushed because I discover another domino precedent to it.

One thing that works are the video game racks, which are low-height and easy to shop, but are also sort of right in the middle of the amphitheater where nobody can see them.  They do need better signage but also it seems like I may need to break up the aisles and make them easier to enter.  This could potentially allow things like dedicated racks for each given system.  I'm not sure exactly how this is going to get reconfigured, but I'm close.  I at least know what the result needs to be.  As it is right now they have a low attract rate and a high conversion rate.  From among customers who actually make it to the video game racks, we get plenty of sales.

The storefront is going to switch to Square Retail POS soon, leaving singles for now on Crystal Commerce.  This is going to help me solve another problem, which is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to keep track manually of what sells through and has to be restocked that sits on the main floor.  Enough of the business is used merch now that this isn't a debilitating problem.  But it's related to pathways in that I've got a bunch of shoppable racks that the natural flow of the floor does not direct people toward in a meaningful way.  They only get there if they explore further on their own initiative, which not all shoppers do.

Our comic deployment is about to change considerably and I don't think it's finished doing so.  We engaged in a massive inventory conveyance to Game On in Prescott, who gave us an offer too generous for us to refuse, and that leaves the comic side of our business focused on boxholders and new releases almost entirely.  That part of our mechanism has been performing well and now we get to configure a focused setup for that and let it run on diesel fuel for a while so we can get some other cost centers and feature centers wrangled properly.

There's more than that and I suppose without photos this makes for something of a dry read.  But this sort of boring iteration is at the core of my work right now.  We have four and a half years left on the lease and no moves or alterations of the footage on the immediate horizon, so it's all kicks and punches until further notice.  Fundamentals, in product first and then in facility.  Facility looks the worse for its second-priority ranking.  And here we are.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Live by the Facebook, Die by the Facebook

I've been locked out of Facebook on my home computer due to their Trend Micro glitch/hustle/scam.  They halt my login stating that malware has been found on my PC, and force me to download ransomware from Trend Micro and run it to continue to use the platform, to "keep Facebook safe."

Except every part of that is wrong.

My home computer is an iMac, not a PC.  It has no malware.  Macs don't get viruses.  (Shut up, you know they don't really, at least not the way malware circulates for Windows.  Clickbait articles from anti-malware software publishers will suggest they've found some MacOS virus running rampant, but then they trot out a proof-of-concept demo, if even that.  A Mac user could get defrauded via phishing, of course, but that's not a software exploit, that's a human exploit.)

Sophos Home has provided my iMac with a clean bill of health in any case.  The only filth in this computer is my saucy repartee.  My friend Brent does enough anti-malware work in his day job that I trust his expertise on which protection suite to install.

And because my home computer runs MacOS High Sierra and not Windows, it cannot run the Trend Micro ransomware to unlock Facebook.  I can download it but it won't run.  Turns out .EXE files only run in Windows.  I'm just stuck.  Can't log in to Facebook at all.

It's not keyed to my IP address because Facebook still works on my iPhone on wifi.  Alas, that's not good enough for business use but will suffice for light recreational consumption.  All my other apps, utilities, data, shared drives, etc, are on the desktop computer, not my cell, and those are needed to get  real work done.  But it proves the lockout is more device-specific than just an IP range.

It's not Safari-specific because Facebook still works fine on Steph's Macbook Pro, four feet to the left of me.  Both our accounts log in just fine.  This also eliminates iCloud as a possible culprit as both Macs here and my iMac at work are all mirrored into each other via the various iCloud app suite frameworks and drives.

It must be some manner of MAC address or other exact device identifier for my iMac in particular, because I wasn't even able to get around the lockout by clearing cache and cookies, restarting, or even installing Chrome or Tor Browser.  I guess I could leave Tor on my system and go use some cryptocurrency to buy a rock of black tar heroin.  Maybe some other time.

A friend of mine who has inside access at Facebook reached out to me and is helping see if he can untangle this mess, and I'm very grateful for that and hope he can make some headway.

Anyway, at the same time as wanting to put my head through the wall with frustration, I had a chance to think about how utterly dominant Facebook has become as a small business interface.  The rest of all my business contact is just a footnote by comparison.  And that means my ability to make a living is basically held hostage to Facebook's whims.  Not good.
They can lock small business owners out of their official pages any time they want.  They could demand ransom payments of serious amounts.  What choice would we have but to pay or suffer steep losses of contact and reach?  It's not fully shut-us-down dangerous, but it would change the equation on advertising tremendously.

Part of Facebook's power as a platform for businesses comes from the targeted advertising being so overwhelmingly effective for the price it costs.  We have the ability to tailor hyperspecific advert sets that reach exact customer demographic segments, and for a pittance we can address them for relatively exact periods of time, and in such a way that they see the promotion organically as they are going about their recreational web consumption.

That's huge because advertising outside Facebook is so much worse, in essentially every way.  It's less precise to hit a mark, more expensive to craft a message payload to deliver, and vastly more difficult to measure exactly who you reached, with what, and when.  To say nothing of conventional adverts being, well, tacky and commercial-ish.  Whereas on Facebook they're so much less intrusive when done well, and amount to "Here is this cool thing."

Platforms like Google and Yelp are the next tier down and neither of them is offering anywhere near the pound-for-pound value to a business.  And they are the next-best things!

Then there would be retrenching to old media like television, radio, and tree corpses of various kinds.  Expensive and horrifically wasteful.  You pay out the nose and you're all but shouting into the wind.

And yet, and yet, and yet... now I find myself wondering what it will take to get back to broader and more effective advertising in these other media.  Because obviously I can't count on Facebook.  One little lockout and all of a sudden my marathon runner is hobbling along on a wooden leg.  It's breathtaking how crippling this feels to my ability to do my work for the store.

This is only shallow malice, too!  This is just a money grab, focused in the tech sphere.  Much like how they've been manipulating feeds to push businesses for more and more money in order to get their content seen.  What happens when it's about something more pernicious than money?  We know Facebook has been somewhat onerous lately in pushing a political focus... what happens when you don't write what they like?  Or post the photos or videos they approve of?  What happens when you are trying to make a living but you are lacking in your... comradeship?

(It sounds paranoid and excessive until it happens and then you're like wait this is insane how can this really be taking place in this day and age)

And so far we're only contemplating action by the social media platform owner!  (Users are the product.  Business advertisers are ostensibly the customers.  Facebook has made it pretty clear right now who needs whom more.)  When the hive mind truly sets in and a generation of consumers simply live in social media without thinking... that's when we'll be stuck in an episode of Black Mirror.  Not to keep coming back to that reference, but a show about the dark side of ubiquitous communications technology is pretty damned topical to almost everything any of us are doing every day.

Review culture already has us well on the way to "Nosedive" and the bookend segments of "White Christmas."  I'm heartened to see some degree of backlash happening.  Thoughtful consumers no longer instantly believe the one angry guy who 1-starred the restaurant because of some atypical experience where management perhaps fumbled its attempt to make good.  But not all consumers are thoughtful consumers.  A bad review absolutely hurts a business, it drives some amount of casual bread-and-butter traffic away.  And small businesses can only run that rotisserie for a short while; the customer journeys to each competitor in turn, happy until the one thing that pisses him off that day, moves to the next, same thing happens, and then he ends up shrugging, assuming all commerce is awful and always will be, mise well just go to Wal-Mart.  And... (/gestures around at all of this)

I am told this particular Facebook lockout lasts a few days and then goes away on its own.  That likely won't happen until after this article sees print, but I'll edit this paragraph when it does.  Until I get my account back, then... I guess I'll just go stare at the ceiling and try to plan how I'll continue doing business with the ever-tightening ratchet of big social media companies that are becoming more and more powerful in this arena.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Major Consoles Summed Up By a Store Owner in One Sentence Each

That's a long title, innit?  I get asked this stuff a lot and I want it easily searchable online, no more sinister motive than that.

The consoles, that is.  I get asked about the consoles.  Whether I'm among other tabletop game store owners who may or may not be thinking about branching into video games, or I'm at a "civilian" social setting like a party with my wife's friends or family, or I'm talking business with my pre-store friends/peers, whatever.  Inevitably I get asked, what's the deal with the Super Nintendo these days.  Or the Switch.  Or what should I do with my old Playstation 3.  Or is it worth getting my Xbox 360 fixed.  Or what's the best-seller.  Or what old system do people collect for.  (Few people collect for pre-NES systems.)

Like asking a hobbit about his relatives, you don't want to get me started on every last fringe console, because I've heard of essentially all of them, I've owned almost all of them, and I feel competent to expound at length on virtually every piece of video game hardware, home or arcade, that has ever been built.  That article will bore you right into your coffin.  It's also not what people really mean when they ask me about consoles.  They want to know about the stuff they're familiar with.

I'm omitting the handhelds here also, but I may revisit that in a future article.  Where does handheld console leave off and smartphone software platform begin?  It's a topic worthy of its own feature.

So here we go!  One sentence each that I hope sums up exactly what matters about each of these consoles, right now, in early 2018, in the industry as we know it, with games as we know them.

Magnavox Odyssey and other pong machines: These are basically pointless today and exist mainly as museum pieces and curiosities.

Atari VCS ("2600"): The Atari is the granddaddy of them all, but is also only marginally playable in a real sense; even arcade-seasoned older players will struggle to enjoy it.

Mattel Intellivision: Quite possibly the worst controllers ever devised, and whoever engineered the Intellivision II to use a 16.7-volt power supply ought to be punched in the sternum.

Magnavox Odyssey 2: Not an accident there didn't end up being an Odyssey 3.

Atari 5200: I take back what I said about the Intellivision controllers.

ColecoVision: The second-most-playable of the pre-NES consoles, the Coleco still suffers from awful controllers and archaic hardware design, but has its fans nonetheless.

Atari 7800: "Hey, let's stop playing our NES for a while and try this system that Atari designed four years ago but only now released," said zero players at the time.

GCE Vectrex: The most playable of the pre-NES consoles, if you can find one.

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES): The cornerstone of everything about retro video games, from the ubiquity of Super Mario Bros to the common hardware repairs, and the first system to have video games that play fully in the modern sense of the experience.

Sega Master System: Come for Phantasy Star, stay for a few other titles but most people will be pretty much done after Phantasy Star.

NEC Turbografx-16: This thing is so much more Japanese than American players were ready for.

Sega Genesis: It hasn't aged well, but the Genesis is probably second only to the Xbox 360 in terms of pound-for-pound entertainment value per dollars spent.

Nintendo Super NES: The hardcore collectors crow about tracking down every obscure JRPG, but the top sellers by far on this system are the two dozen or so games that appear on the SNES Classic Mini.

SNK Neo Geo: I love that this system is basically the bridge into the arcade hobby, because for what it costs to collect and play a handful of AES games, you can basically get an MVS cabinet and plenty of inexpensive carts and have a purist's awesome time on it.

Multi 3DO: I wanted this system to be so much more than it became.

Sega 32X: I expected this system to become about what it ended up as.

Sega CD: Playing an original copy of Magical Fantasy Adventure Popful Mail on all-original hardware and a PVM is like taking one of those $300 shots of Scotch that are exquisite despite being wholly unnecessary.

Sega Saturn: I love that this system is basically the bridge into the otaku/Japan collecting hobby, because for what it costs to collect absurdly rare American versions of most meaningful titles, you can basically get a Japanese Saturn and play tons of inexpensive games, in native RGB video no less.

Sony Playstation: [PLEASE WAIT, LOADING. . . . . . . . . . .]

Nintendo 64: There are adults walking around today with jobs and houses and kids who look at this console and refer to it as "vintage" or "old school."

Sega Dreamcast: It will forever be November 27, 1998, both in our hearts and in the Dreamcast's stupidly designed motherboard CMOS battery assembly.

Sony Playstation 2: [DISC READ ERROR]

Microsoft Xbox 2001: The most common Pentium III 733mHz PC ever produced, and everything that goes with that distinction.

Nintendo Gamecube: Hated in its day but loved today, despite years without any sensible way to get the official component cable.

Microsoft Xbox 360: Fanboys and hardcores won't notice, but this system (if you can get one that hasn't imploded) is the best value in video gaming right now, with tons of outstanding games available for next to nothing both on disc and digitally via Xbox Live.

Sony Playstation 3: So much of both future-looking inspired engineering and past-hobbled crufty engineering combine to make a fascinating system that will one day be fodder for cult collectors, situated as it is between the two far greater successes of the PS2 and PS4.

Nintendo Wii: The big N's success at targeting the deep blue ocean and making motion control really work resulted in a console that performs differently in the aftermarket than any other: truckloads of seeming shovelware often find an audience in people looking for such lighter fare, and nestled in between are hidden gems that serious gamers chase after.

Nintendo Wii U: Too early, too underdone, and with an iPad gimmick that never truly added value like it could have, the saving grace of Nintendo's biggest market failure since the Virtual Boy is that it has more tier-1 games per capita than perhaps any other console.

Microsoft Xbox One: Redmond ruined the initial launch by telling gamers what they already knew but didn't want to hear about the inevitability of the end of transferable physical media; the resulting backlash crowned the PS4 the winner of this generation in hearts and minds, but I'll wait until the long-term implications of the Xbox-Windows Unified Gaming Platform become more evident before rendering final judgment.

Sony Playstation 4: The hottest platform right now and where the majority of the action is if you're into JRPGs or fighters in particular.

Nintendo Switch: This is what the Wii U and 3DS both should have been and eventually did become, and with any luck this system will have a long and bountiful lifespan full of awesome titles.

There we go!  If you disagree then leave a comment on the web zone and like and subscribe and give me money on Patreon or whatever it is people are doing these days.  Have a great week!

Image credit: Ars Technica (C) 2018